Re­li­gious free­dom laws ex­pose rift for GOP hope­fuls

Awk­ward junc­ture for de­bate on so­cial is­sues

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

The di­vi­sive battle over gay rights and re­li­gious free­doms that broke out this week in In­di­ana and Arkansas has thrust the na­tion’s cul­ture wars back onto the front page and ex­posed just the sort of rift on so­cial is­sues that Repub­li­cans had been wary of as they set the ta­ble for their 2016 pres­i­den­tial con­test.

Po­ten­tial GOP can­di­dates have raced to de­fend the two Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated states’ leg­is­la­tures for pass­ing laws in­su­lat­ing busi­nesses from hav­ing to con­duct trans­ac­tions that vi­o­late their re­li­gious be­liefs, and GOP an­a­lysts say the fight could help en­er­gize con­ser­va­tive vot­ers.

But those same an­a­lysts warned Repub­li­cans will need to be pre­pared to han­dle po­lit­i­cal blow­back from the broader elec­torate that might be turned off by what they see as harsh rhetoric.

“This re­ally needs a lit­tle fi­nesse,” said for­mer Vir­ginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III. “You just need to thread the nee­dle and be cog­nizant of all the land mines when you han­dle th­ese kinds of is­sues.”

Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors and so­cial val­ues groups said they have been stunned by the fight, ar­gu­ing they are try­ing to pro­tect busi­ness own­ers with hon­estly held be­liefs from hav­ing to swallow their ob­jec­tions. They ar­gue a fed­eral law al­ready does the same at the na­tional level and that gay ac­tivists and the na­tional me­dia have badly mis­char­ac­ter­ized the is­sues at stake.

But gay rights groups say the laws go be­yond the fed­eral statute and say the GOP-led states ap­pear to be spoil­ing for a fight by pass­ing the new laws. The new state laws have been drafted in re­sponse to re­ports of busi­nesses such as pho­tog­ra­phers or bak­ers who serve gay cus­tomers but have drawn a line at pro­vid­ing ser­vices for same-sex wed­dings.

The fall­out in In­di­ana con­tin­ued on Thurs­day as Mr. Pence signed a “fix” to the state’s re­li­gious free­dom bill af­ter get­ting shelled with crit­i­cism for the orig­i­nal law. Mr. Pence said the changes were meant to ease fears that it would lead to dis­crim­i­na­tion against gays.

The ac­tion came the same day as Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas signed a mea­sure that also had been re­shaped at his re­quest so that it mir­rored the Re­li­gious Free­dom Restora­tion Act that Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton signed in 1993.

The pre­vi­ous day, Mr. Hutchinson had even re­vealed how his son, Seth, signed a pe­ti­tion against the bill.

But so­cial con­ser­va­tives slammed Mr. Pence and Mr. Hutchinson as cav­ing to crit­i­cism from lib­eral groups, the me­dia and even Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, un­der­scor­ing the tricky line Repub­li­cans must walk as they try to bal­ance their right flank’s in­ter­ests with the need to reach a broader elec­torate to win in 2016.

The les­son for the GOP pres­i­den­tial con­tenders is they must send a clear mes­sage that they are part of an “in­clu­sive party that stands for lib­erty and against dis­crim­i­na­tion in all its forms — pe­riod,” said Kevin Sheri­dan, a GOP strate­gist.

“Bot­tom line, the suc­cess­ful can­di­date in 2016 will have to have se­ri­ously thought about civil, per­sonal and re­li­gious pro­tec­tions and be able to ar­tic­u­late their views in a way that makes vot­ers on ei­ther side of an is­sue trust they are rea­son­able and be­lieve in what they are say­ing,” Mr. Sheri­dan said.

Most of the 2016 GOP pres­i­den­tial con­tenders have rushed to de­fend the em­bat­tled Mr. Pence, in­clud­ing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal, who said Thurs­day that Chris­tians shouldn’t have to chose be­tween their faith and op­er­at­ing their busi­nesses.

“Gov­ern­ment is re­quir­ing Chris­tians to par­tic­i­pate in gay mar­riage cer­e­monies that of­ten­times con­tra­dict their re­li­gious be­liefs,” he said in an in­ter­view with Simon Con­way on 600 WMT ra­dio in Iowa. “Here in Amer­ica we shouldn’t force those with sin­cerely held re­li­gious be­liefs to par­tic­i­pate in cer­e­monies they don’t want to. That is the real dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

Mike McKenna, a GOP strate­gist, said that sort of mes­sage is a good thing for the party be­cause it res­onates with so­cial con­ser­va­tive and lib­er­tar­i­ans alike, and could ap­peal to a broader au­di­ence.

“Most Amer­i­cans are prob­a­bly on the side of the baker,” he said. “If you want to bake a cake for some­one’s wed­ding, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t have to.”

He said the push plays into a broader Amer­i­can ethos of “I am go­ing to leave you alone, and I will sus­pect that you will leave me alone.”

As for con­cerns over los­ing the sup­port of young vot­ers by seem­ing to op­pose gay mar­riage, he said, “I have seen very lit­tle data in the last 20 years, and I have been look­ing, that tells you that so­cial is­sues are losers for Repub­li­cans.”

Holly Shulman, a spokesper­son for the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, dis­agreed, say­ing the In­di­ana law is a huge prob­lem for Repub­li­cans in 2016.

“Repub­li­cans can talk all they want about new out­reach ef­forts, but it is all su­per­fi­cial un­til they change their dam­ag­ing poli­cies that are far out­side the main­stream, and not a sin­gle one of the lead­ing con­tenders for their pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, nor [in] their na­tional party, is will­ing to do that,” she said. “The Repub­li­can Party is on the wrong side of his­tory, and that’s a bad place for them to be.”

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